With 600 students, including a significant percentage of immigrants, music teacher Diane Schaming wanted to try something new to interest the children in the music of different cultures.
So last summer she went to Africa and brought back music to Baltimore County's Shady Spring Elementary School that now vibrates through every molecule of her classroom trailer.
Her fourth-grade students beat on drums, shake axatses or rattles, and hit cowbells and a double bell called a gankogin. Even on the last period of the day, no one is squirming or falling asleep.
Tope Akinbiola, 9, loves the drums. "The rhythm of the beat is different than anything," she said. "It is really fun."
Seated in a large circle that takes up the entire classroom, students are grouped by the instrument they play, each beating out a part, like rounds in a song. Schaming conducts the ensemble, adding a new group of instruments every eight beats. By the end, six groups of instruments are playing at the same time, the rhythmic, drumming, clacking and rattling sound increasing until everyone seems to feel it in their bones.
"It feels like a heartbeat that you get to control with your hands," said Emmanuel McFadden, 10, who added that he likes the feel of the drums on his palms.
In fact, students say it takes a lot of focus to keep their music going to a steady beat or the "high, low, high" beat that Schaming claps out. And the African drums aren't as easy as one might think, Schaming and the students said.
Schaming began teaching three years ago, after she got her master's from the Peabody Conservatory of Music. She always intended to be a music teacher and sings opera and in a church choir on Sunday.
An avid traveler, she saw an advertisement in an education magazine for an African drumming class in Ghana, which is considered the center of drumming in Africa, she said. She thought it might help her make connections with her students. "If they know I care about their culture, that really helps," she said.
For three weeks in August, Schaming took a course with other music teachers in Kopeiya. She said it was exhausting, with two hours of dance in the morning and two hours of drumming in the afternoon. Sweat dripped off her after the dance and she had to concentrate hard on the drumming to learn it.
When she returned, the school's principal bought a package of African drumming instruments and after they arrived, Schaming began trying them out first on her fourth-grade class, the class that tended to have the greatest number of behavior problems. Since the drumming began, she said, the students have been much more engaged in class, and even the students whom she would usually have to remind to be good are better behaved.
One of the first lessons was learning to respect the instruments. She had students name each drum.
"If you put a name on it, you are going to respect it more," she said. The drums come in three sizes, each painted with bright, almost fluorescent-colored leaves. Each one is played with the ends of the fingers and a slightly cupped hand to produce the best sounds.
She also helped teach the students to focus by anointing a few as class "distractors" who challenge classmates to keep a steady beat going even as they try every trick to get them to miss a beat.
Some students have picked up the drums quickly, playing them with self-assurance after only a few classes, but others stumble and have trouble keeping up. The difference, Schaming believes, is in part whether the students have been introduced to music by their parents at home. This year her fourth-graders are being exposed not just to drums but to different classical instruments, such as the violin and trumpet, and will pick one to play in fifth grade.
In spring, she is hoping to start an after-school drumming club.